Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1045
Honoré de Balzac stood at the dividing line between Romanticism and realism. He was inclined toward the fantastic and supernatural and to the exaggeration of normal human types, but his desire to reproduce concrete fact and to visualize the scene or object made him a superb painter of French society in the first half of the nineteenth century. Both of these aspects of his writing are easily observed in Cousin Pons, part of the Scenes from Parisian Life segment of Balzac’s La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Human Comedy, 1885-1893, 1896).
Balzac’s own interest in the supernatural and hereafter is seen in the discussion of fortune-telling and astrology when Madame Cibot calls on the witchlike Madame Fontaine in her den. Balzac devotes several pages to an analysis of the plausibility of the seer’s art and the reality of certain types of divination. Human beings do not understand everything that exists in the universe, he says, and should not close their eyes to some possibilities simply because they cannot be explained. This idea leads to a belief that is fundamental in Balzac’s philosophy and that played an important part in his writing and in the structure of The Human Comedy: predestination. Balzac believed that the fates conspired to lead human beings to their ultimate destinies. Given the circumstances of people’s backgrounds and the makeup of their characters and factors of their lives, they have no way of avoiding a particular fate. Balzac considered his job to be that of a recorder setting down the causes and effects of the lives and destinies of his characters, and he believed that his method was scientific and objective.
In Cousin Pons, readers see the characters of the old collector Pons and his beloved friend, Schmucke, and how their good and trusting natures are taken advantage of by the avaricious people around them. Given the nature of human beings, it is not surprising that the story works its way to a pathetic and painful conclusion. It would be incorrect to say that Balzac created men and women more horrible than any who lived; Balzac knew very well that people who have been taught that material values are the only important ones will stop at nothing until they have acquired everything they can see within their grasp. The morality or lack of morality in Madame Cibot, Fraisier, Remonencq, and the other characters is the result of many factors, which Balzac draws with his usual skill. None of these people stands outside society; they all are influenced by it and in turn influence it. This is one of the fundamental themes in The Human Comedy.
The friendship between Pons and Schmucke is portrayed with a touching humor and sensitivity. The devotion between the two old men provides a counterpoint to the grasping, almost savage, natures of Madame Cibot and the others. Seldom did Balzac portray such a low level of society, but he shows both sides of the coin, the love and generosity possible between human beings as well as the cruelty and hypocrisy. If the negative powers ultimately are victorious, that is merely—Balzac implies—the fates at work. That does not mean, however, that he believes that the negative always wins.
Cousin Pons was intended as a companion volume to Cousin Bette (1846). In Cousin Pons there is the poor male relation, cruelly treated, but gentle of heart, and in Cousin Bette there is the poor female relation, also cruelly treated, but revenging herself. The symmetry pleased Balzac, and, read together, the two novels form a powerful structure and a devastating picture of human nature and its possibilities for good and evil.
The collection of old Pons is one that Balzac, himself an avid collector, would have wanted to own. Pons’s passion for antiques was shared by Balzac, as was the old man’s terror of other people gazing upon or possibly stealing them. Balzac was always at his best when describing a mania—as in connection with Père Goriot, Eugénie Grandet, and César Birotteau—whether the subject was greed, a passion for collecting, or obsessive parental affection. Balzac did more than sympathize with Pons’s mania: He felt with Pons as the old man put together and tried to guard his rooms. The passion for the collection, also shared by the old Jew, Elie Magus, is portrayed with so much intensity that the reader comes to feel some of it as well.
Pons and Schmucke are two of the great characters in Balzac’s vast gallery and in all of European literature. They both are extremely funny and very touching. They are “odd” yet never absurd, and they are portrayed with a truth of observation and a subtlety of touch that render them sympathetic despite their quirks of personality. Their strange habits and costumes and their odd passions for collecting, for good food, and for company are not applied by the writer from the outside but emerge from within their living, breathing beings. That is why their ultimate fates are so devastating to the reader; their gentle, unworldly natures soon become objects of concern, and their lives present moral pictures of the most painful kind.
Despite its grim, brutal aspects, Cousin Pons is actually a very gentle book. The greater part of the story is devoted to the friendship and the devotion of Schmucke and old Pons. Pons’s loyalty for his old friend and his effort to care for Schmucke even after his own death are touchingly shown. When the grasping natures of Madame Cibot and her allies are held up before this picture of unselfish love, they appear doubly horrible. A tone of quiet melancholy pervades the book, a sadness on the part of Balzac that such a fate should await two such good men. As the chronicler of human nature in all of its forms, however, he cannot flinch. He draws the de Marville household in all of its pettiness and Madame Cibot, a woman who rivals even Cousin Bette when it comes to merciless scheming. Before Balzac, few authors had attempted such an uncompromising look at the varieties of human nature. So honest was his gaze that, even today, readers find themselves flinching at the picture he painted.
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